Public Health in the Progressive Era

“The Progressive movement stressed the need to emancipate public health practice from its unsystematic and ad hoc basis.”

– Dorothy Porter, Health, Civilization and the State, 1999

City health inspector Esther Pohl Lovejoy, M.D. and the staff of the Portland Health Department, 1907. (Esther Pohl Lovejoy Collection, 2001-011)

The Progressive Era in the United States lasted from the 1890s to the 1920s and brought widespread social and political reform to the country. The field of public health flourished during this period. Through public initiatives in health education and health care, reformers successfully fought the communicable diseases, malnutrition, and poor sanitation prevalent at the time.

The increasing collection of data and advances in the field of statistics were a boon to public health professionals at this time. As well as appealing to moral and philosophical sentiments, Progressive Era health reformers could also use hard data to make arguments and support decision-making.

Esther Pohl Lovejoy, M.D.

Portland Board of Health Mid-Year Report, 1909 (Esther Pohl Lovejoy Papers, 2001-004)

During the Progressive Era, women physicians such as Esther Pohl Lovejoy, M.D. established public health programs, founded settlement houses, and undertook other reforms. Lovejoy served as the Portland health officer from 1907 to 1909, becoming the first woman to appointed to such a position in a major American city.

A proponent of Progressive ideals, Lovejoy believed it was the responsibility of government to support the health and well-being of the people. As city health officer, she collected vital statistics and her annual reports for 1907 and 1908 revealed that Portland had the lowest death rate of similarly sized cities in the country.

Draft of a speech or report on impure milk and infant mortality, undated (Esther Pohl Lovejoy Papers, 2001-004)

She cited infant mortality statistics to demonstrate that preventable disease in children was a public health crisis, and one which could be mitigated by regulation of the milk supply. Numbers alone were not enough, however. Lovejoy invoked Progressive ideals in her exhortation, “Every perfect child has a right to live. It has the same right to protection from preventable disease as it has from any other form of homicide."

Lovejoy’s efforts to regulate Portland’s milk supply were successful. Under her direction, Portland advanced its national reputation for high standards in sanitation. She went on to become an activist for international humanitarian causes, particularly the rights of women and children.

Total number of deaths, included in the Portland Board of Health’s 1908 Annual Report (Esther Pohl Lovejoy Papers; 2001-004)